Boris Johnson’s promise to “level up” the nation by providing next-generation-speed broadband to most homes by 2025 is under threat as rural dwellers are left behind in the internet revolution, according to a report by parliament’s spending watchdog.
The report by the public accounts committee found that the government is relying too heavily on companies, most notably BT Openreach and Virgin Media O2, to achieve Johnson’s key election manifesto pledge of addressing the UK’s status as a global laggard in broadband speeds.
These companies are focused on the less costly, easier to reach urban conurbations across the UK. The government plan, developed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is failing to deliver on a promise to find affordable solutions to connect those living in rural areas and remote towns and villages.
“What DCMS does know full well is it can’t rely on the private sector to get fast broadband to the hardest to reach, excluded and rural areas,” said Dame Meg Hillier, the chair of the PAC. “And despite its repeated promises to do exactly that, we are apparently little nearer to closing ‘the great digital divide’ developing across the UK nor addressing the social and economic inequality it brings with it.”
At the end of last year, 47% of UK homes and premises had the potential to sign up for next-generation-speed broadband. While the rollout plan means half of all urban dwellers can get these speeds, only a quarter of those in rural areas have the opportunity.
The huge demand for reliable, high-speed internet connections as millions moved to home, remote and flexible working and schooling during the pandemic has increased pressure on and scrutiny of the government’s plans.
An initial promise by Johnson to deliver full-fibre broadband to every UK home by 2025 was subsequently expanded to include gigabit technology, which provides equally fast connections but the PAC said is “not as future proof”, in order to achieve the target.
The promise to reach every home was then reduced to 85% of homes and premises, with the government making only £1.2bn of a £5bn fund created to connect rural homes available until one year before its 2025 deadline, which the PAC is not convinced will be achieved.
“DCMS’s planning and project management show all the signs of the previous rollout – the focus will continue to be on the easier to reach areas and there is still no plan for the hardest to reach communities,” Hillier said. “It couldn’t really explain how broadband has got as far as it has in this critical national strategy. And incredibly it still doesn’t have a real plan for getting the rest of the way to its downgraded targets.”
The PAC pointed out that the longer-term goal of every household getting access by 2030 still excludes about 134,000 premises in the hardest to reach areas that are not commercially viable. These “forgotten homes” are still unable to get even the 10Mbps speed connection deemed the bare minimum to meet a modern family’s needs.
The prohibitive cost of reaching these premises through conventional methods means the government is considering alternative technology such as satellite broadband to connect them.
“It is misleading to suggest we are reliant on the commercial sector to hit our target, which we remain on track to meet,” said a spokesperson for the DCMS. “We are investing £5bn so hard-to-reach areas can get gigabit speeds. Our policies and investment also mean 97% of premises can access superfast broadband which meets people’s current needs and helped us through the pandemic.”